27-year-old Zhang Zheyuan is prolific. As a violinist, he’s toured with elite performance troupes, traveled the world, and played in Olympic ceremonies. And he’s done it all in darkness.
Zheyuan was born with congenital blindness in southwest China’s Yunnan province. He attended a special school for the disabled, learning side by side with other blind children, in a program designed to equip them with the kind of barebones skills they’d need to survive and make a living, if they were to eventually emerge on their own into the world. And that is an “if” — there’s a tacit understanding that many of the program’s students will never achieve true independence.
For China’s blind, the default path is massage. Some age-old idea posits that, sans vision, one’s sense of touch becomes hyper-developed, allowing blind masseurs to navigate through tensions and knots in the muscles like some kind of bootleg therapeutic Daredevil (having experienced a blind massage, I feel a twang of harsh honesty to recall that it was generally unremarkable). It’s unclear whether the tradition remains alive primarily out of a genuine belief in its tenets, or out of a public willingness to accept it as a sort of de facto, self-sustaining social support system.
Around the time when other children were setting off down the one-way road of massage education, Zheyuan was studying violin. As a productive hobby, of course, not a future career.
One evening while practicing at his instructor’s home, he recalls, rain began to fall heavily outside. The instructor invited Zheyuan to stay for dinner until the storm cleared, putting a Bach record onto the turntable. Zheyuan ate, awash in the white noise of vinyl crackle and raindrops on windows, taking in the sounds of Bach’s compositions. It’s worth noting that Bach too endured much hardship in his life, becoming orphaned at age 10 and eventually going blind himself, dying as the result of a botched surgery.
Zheyuan listened to his teacher, of whom Bach was a personal favorite, as he relayed these stories over Art of Fugue. He recounts feeling deeply affected by Bach’s ability to transform his trauma and suffering into something beautiful that could move others. When the rain cleared he left with a head full of new ideas.
When Zheyuan told his school, no, I don’t want to study massage, I’d actually like to play the violin, he was met with harsh rebuke. Why would someone like Zheyuan want to throw himself into a useless pursuit like that? Why would he want to shuck off the dehumanizing-in-a-way-I-can’t-quite-put-my-finger-on, but also safe and reliable tradition of becoming a masseur? Did he want to starve?
Zheyuan left the school that same year.
Amidst a firestorm of dream-shattering good intentions, Zheyuan’s father was a pillar of support. When others told him to be realistic, it was his father who read Zheyuan’s sheet music aloud, and told him to do something he loved. Zheyuan, with his father’s help, woke up routinely at 7:00 AM and practiced for ten hours each day.
It’s touching, but realistically, it should have been insufficient. When your friends, family, teachers, and caretakers are all telling you that your dream is not of the “come true” variety, but of the “pipe” variety, and when that assessment is bolstered and supported by an unfair and undeserved truth, namely that you are different than others, and less capable than others, and unable to do the basic things that others take for granted (others, they might add, who have failed to achieve the very same dream you’ve identified), the support of one person, sadly, should not be enough to align your inner compass. It’s in this understanding that we move closer to the true nature of Zheyuan’s greatness.
Let’s condense the remainder of Zheyuan’s blow-by-blow history. He called up the China Disabled Person’s Performing Arts Troupe and played his violin on the phone. He was invited to join the elite troupe, and spent the next two years touring the world. He played at the Lincoln Center, placed in a national TV competition, and captivated audiences with a solo performance at the Asia Paralympic Games.
After two years though, uncertainty started to creep in. Zheyuan was undeniably good for a blind man — the best in the world. But Zheyuan wanted to be more than that.
Much to the dismay of his family and friends, who felt that against all odds, he had already achieved his fantastic impossible goal, he went back to school.
The Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing told him they would love to accept him, but unfortunately, didn’t have the facilities required to educate blind students. Zheyuan only heard the first part of that sentence, renting out a small basement near the university and auditing all the classes there.
American schools were stunned by his playing, but turned him away for his poor English. Zheyuan started studying, memorizing a comprehensive English textbook word for word — using the text-reading app on his phone, it was the only method available to him. Clearly, this is a man who doesn’t give a damn if you think he’s already reached his zenith. He has further zeniths in mind, and who are you to tell him otherwise? You probably don’t even play the violin.
That was six years ago. The day that we wrapped on shooting this documentary film, September 20th, 2019, Zheyuan set off on the next leg of his march down an unending and personally-bricked road: a scholarship at the University of Sheffield in England. Goodness knows where he’ll go next.
When it comes to being blind, we tend to feel like it’s quite self-explanatory. The absence of vision. Wouldn’t that be something?
In five days of intensive, 9-to-5 shoots with Zheyuan, we learned that blindness is far more complex, and far less one dimensional than that. It’s not the absence of vision, full stop. It’s the absence of vision as it relates to one’s physical safety, and the absence of vision as it relates to one’s social life, relates to one’s relationships, relates to one’s concept of self. Blindness is not a singular and major affliction that blankets Zheyuan’s life, but a complex and ever-moving truth that changes every aspect of his lived experience, in ways big, small, and diverse.
Shooting one of our RADII Voices films requires a significant commitment from the subject, and most of the time they’re not very familiar with the filmmaking process. Zheyuan, more than anyone, displayed an immeasurable readiness and tolerance for the (often grueling) demands of the shoot.
When the crew was collapsing onto park benches, shoulders sagging with fatigue, Zheyuan was ready for the next shot. When we were scrambling madly to reach our location while the light was perfect, Zheyuan was at the front of the mob. Not once did he question anything or betray a hint of frustration. He was here to make a film, and he brought to that task the same steely resolve he brings with him everywhere.
Interestingly, from the outset, Zheyuan was preoccupied with the visual nature of our project. He wanted to know the shooting style and the visual motifs we had in mind. We sent him references, which he poured over with the help of his dad. When we created a flier for our live music event in Shanghai (Zheyuan improvising with experimental electronic musician Laughing Ears), he sent us back revisions to improve our graphic design.
Zheyuan moves around with a kind of deftness. He bumps into something every now and again, but has an uncanny ability to catch himself that could only come from a lifetime of practice (it’s worth noting that we worked as a team exclusively in environments that were unfamiliar to him). Somewhere like his home or his school, his disability could very well go unnoticed. He can navigate through rooms based on a totally alternate set of sensory skills — he can tell if the walls are metal, and at which point they change to wood, based on the reverberations of spoken voices in the room. Once he’s been in a place for a few minutes, he’s already drawn up a memory map of each object and corner.
That kind of “alternate sensory skill” extends to his specially-designed smartphone, which uses a computer narrator to orate texts, emails, web browsing, etc. It does so at approximately 300 million words per minute, sentences and whole paragraphs whizzing by in a wild gaussian blur. The Mandarin was unintelligible to our Chinese crew members, and when he switched the device to English, I too was stumped. Zheyuan found it amusing — English was his second language, after all, and here he was scoring higher than me on listening comprehension. He had trained to do this.
In between shots, we’d return periodically to Zheyuan’s hotel room for meals or power naps. The hotel was a nice one, with wall-to-wall windows and plenty of natural light. Good feng shui. The only thing that stood out was that some birdbrained interior designer had taken it upon themselves to construct the bathroom’s doors and walls out of perfectly clear glass. Using the restroom, there was an unspoken rule that all would avert their eyes from the glass cube of public shame.
It wasn’t until the fourth day, when we returned to the room with a full crew of additional day-rate cameramen, that one of them cracked a joke about the room’s obvious design flaw.
Zheyuan turned and asked me in English, “The bathroom is made of glass?”
I told him it was. He laughed it off and said something about how silly it was. But I knew that he was having to come to terms, in one instant, with the sudden realization of public awkwardness we’d been enduring all week. Blindness is more than a physical inconvenience — it’s an exclusion from a communal experience that is enjoyed ungratefully by nearly all living creatures.
When we’d wrapped the last scene on day five, we felt that euphoric sense of bliss and relief that comes with crossing any finish line. Zheyuan was beaming. We went straight to a bar to celebrate with beer and chicken wings.
Zheyuan is able to sense the social cues of conversation based on things like the tightened roundness of words spoken with a smile, or the direction someone is facing when telling a story, and the resulting way their voice projects through space. He knows when you’re trying to shake his hand, or when you want to help him with his bags. Sharing a communal basket of chicken wings in the center of the table can be a little tricky, but is overall very manageable.
At one point, I asked him if he could sign the vinyl record we’d used in the film, as a memento of our time together.
“Sign it?” he said. “I can only sign it in braille!”
I’d put my foot in my mouth. Even the simple pleasure of autographing something for a fan (which by now, I had become), writing one’s own name, was outside of Zheyuan’s experience.
But when he’d said that, he’d done it with a sincere smile, laughing about it. This is classic Zheyuan.
The amazing thing about Zheyuan is not that he has mastered the violin. The amazing thing about Zheyuan is that, saddled with a challenge more immense than most people have ever known, he holds himself like someone who is completely unbothered in every moment. More than unbothered, but grateful.
Through one week of intense shooting, outside of his element, being prodded and shuttled around a foreign city by a crew of near-strangers, Zheyuan complained zero times. The only thing he brought forward was productive energy and assurance, even at times when we had little of our own. When he ran out of that, he slept.
It occurred to me that it was this attunement to a greater understanding, and a certainty about one’s place in this world, that allows Zheyuan to do what he does. In spite of his challenges, Zheyuan has mastered his outlook on life, and he has mastered himself, in an almost nirvanic, Buddhist kind of way.
Zheyuan is not amazing because he has mastered the violin. He is amazing because he has mastered Zheyuan. His music is an expression of that — a symptom of the greater “illness” of freedom and conviction in one’s own inner truth. We hope you enjoy Zheyuan’s story as much as we enjoyed telling it with him.
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